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Problem Finding, Department of

There have been so many books and things about problem-solving that we figure most problems are already solved. So we need more problems to keep all those expert problem solvers busy.

Monday, November 15, 2004


Is book publishing caught in the web?

Somebody asked how the future of book publishing looks in the shadow of the web. Here is how it looks to me.

The web makes a nearly perfect market from the view of economists. Perfect price information obtained at almost no cost. That makes the perfect storm from the standpoint of retailers. Anything that can be a commodity becomes a commodity. What makes a commodity is perfect product information. If all products with same identifiers are interchangeable, they become commodities. The market settles into price competition. Cue the Wal-Mart.

As I started thinking through the implications of this for the publishing industry, I first thought in terms of the standard parts (Author, agent, publisher, retail, customer). How will retail change, for example. That, I eventually realized, was my usual horseless carriage thinking. ("Put them new gasoline engines in carriages and all you have is a horseless carriage. A few minor changes, that's all.")

So now I'm thinking a gedanken redesign. What are the essential elements of what we now call the book publishing industry? How were those elements provided in the past? How could they be provided in the world of the web? Assume self-published e-books as a low cost starter.

What functions have books served in the past? I wish I had an exit poll from Barnes & Noble with percentage breakdowns: Why did you buy this book? Publishers probably have some information on this.

What book functions require a physical book? I have not subscribed to a newspaper in years. They used to provide me with news. Yahoo now does that better. Books provide information. Is that function challenged by web resources? A book is a tangible gift. How strong is that function now that people use gift certificates from Amazon?

What processes will be available for delivery of a physical book? Local retailer, remote shipping, print-on-demand service, or print my own copy from an Adobe download. Note that the last two allow great possibilities in personalizing. For example, as a gift.

What technology will be available to replace a physical book? I am in the process of replacing all the physical magazines that I read for information. I have an online subscription to Consumer's Reports. I use KeepMedia.com as my main window to the general magazines. I still want paper for content I read while relaxing. I haven't seen any suitable technology to replace that yet, but it might come soon. Google just gave me 17M returns from: digital screen, including an item: Next digital screen could fold like paper. Connect a digital screen to my Wi-Fi net or to a 20G audio player. Maybe you get technology for lounging around.

What might replace the specialized help you get from specialized retailers? Here (drumroll, please) I have an actual idea: Specialized websites that give the same kind of help. They sell links and clicks. They leave to retailing to Amazon and Wal-Mart. For self-published e-books, they may offer the download, handle the transaction, and take a part of the payment . That’s just like publishers. Yeah, publishers are the middle-men in this story. Think of them as a new version of Willy Loman.

What might replace the editorial, filtering, and credentialing functions of publishers? Aside from printing books, a known publisher represents a brand. They are not going to put "Woman Gives Birth to Space Alien" on their non-fiction list. At least not yet. Here, I have an idea again. That's two in a row, although it is the same idea. If anybody can publish, people will want a responsible (branded) website that gives some assurance of qualifications and quality.

Who will provide the marketing and promotion? Is this going to be three in a row? And how often can I reuse the same idea? Those specialized websites can do only part of the job here. I used to hear book reviews on NPR (ATC). Now I listen to KenRadio, WebTalk Guys, IT conversations, and Adam Curry. I never hear book reviews. A specialized website could probably get access to NPR archives and organize playlists to produce a 20 minute podcast on, for example, recent (nontechincal) books about cancer research. (Note the importance of credentialing here. NPR will probably pick qualified reviewers.) If there aren't enough reviews, the website could ask for reviews from university faculty. One in the technical field and one in the English department. Or put them together and let them argue like Siskel and Ebert.

Well, that's the best I can do for now. One of the great things about being alive is that next week I'll know more. I’ll even think of things I left out. Some of them.

Hi Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Take care.
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